Indonesia Parliament mulls over ending direct elections for local leaders

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono addresses members of the parliament, ahead of the country's Independence Day in Jakarta on Aug 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono addresses members of the parliament, ahead of the country's Independence Day in Jakarta on Aug 15, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesian lawmakers are expected to vote this week on legislation that ends direct elections for governors and mayors, a measure critics say would weaken the country's democratic advances and encourage patronage politics.

The world's third-largest democracy introduced direct elections of regional leaders in 2005, allowing for a new breed of politicians to emerge that were not linked to the political elite - such as President-elect Joko Widodo.

But direct elections have also proved to be costly for candidates, limiting the field to those who can afford to pay for their campaigns. "High costs are required sometimes to carry our fair elections," said Mr Robert Endi Jaweng, executive director of Regional Autonomy Watch, a local non-governmental organisation. "But the logic of democracy is not about the logic of efficiency, it's about the right of the people to choose their leaders."

The Bill, which has strong support in Parliament and is backed by several members in the coalition of losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, would give local legislatures the power to choose governors and other regional heads instead of their constituents. "The selection of regional heads by local parliament is more effective and efficient than through direct elections," Mr Prabowo's Gerindra Party tweeted on Tuesday. "Those who say that elections through local parliament are contrary to the values of democracy are not right."

Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose party supports the Bill, must approve the legislation before it becomes law.

Indonesia has embraced democratic reforms since the downfall of autocratic leader Suharto in 1998.

This year's presidential election, the closest ever in Indonesia's history, took place without any major violence or military intervention. That contrasts with neighbouring Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar and Cambodia, which have seen recent setbacks to their democracies.

Advisers to President-elect Joko, who is also known as Jokowi, said they believe the Bill violates the Constitution but would not have a significant effect on how they govern. "If Parliament passes the Bill, there will be no impact on Jokowi's administration," said Mr Faisal Akbar, deputy chairman of Widodo's transition team.

Mr Joko's Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle is the biggest party for 55 per cent of the country's 34 local legislatures, said Mr Achmad Sukarsono, a political analyst for think-tank Habibie Centre.